I can do all this through him who gives me strength.Philliipians 4:13
My first memory of Wendy Partin and Debbie LeBoux are at PawPaw’s in the late spring of 1975, when azaleas were in full blossom and their scent waifed into every breath. PawPaw had just given Wendy the used car that I’d later recognize as a Datsun, a small hatchback with lots of easily accessed storage that could haul telephone books, like the ubiquitous Yellow Pages that were delivered every spring, listing all the new businesses in town.
PawPaw helped Wendy and Debbie load yellow books into the Datsun, stacking them almost to the roof but leaving enough room on top of the back passenger seat for me to squeeze in. They stood back and smoked cigarettes and admired their work and joked that I’d barely fit. They were right. Debbie helped cram me into the small space and Wendy slid into the driver’s seat and laughed and tried to operate the manual transmission and we lurched a few times before finally driving down PawPaw’s gravel driveway. She didn’t fully stop at the blacktop, and I slid against the window when she lurched left and changed gears and we accelerated down the small two lane road towards more densely packed subdivisions in desperate need of the Yellow Pages. We went up the interstate ramp and were flying down I-10 when they rolled up their windows and Debbie took out her dainty little bag with hand-sewn flowers and began rolling a joint and chatting with me. She was even smaller than Wendy, and had delicate deft hands that quickly rolled a perfectly formed joint.
I was fascinated by Debbie’s little bag, and she handed it to me while she lit the joint and cracked her windshield to exhale up and out. The bag was beautiful, and the raised textures of the flowers was unlike my brightly colored but smooth Crayon bag. And it smelled nice, and I wanted it. Debbie laughed and handed the joint to Wendy, who had a hand free now that we were on the interstate and not changing gears. Wendy inhaled and coughed out her cracked window, and Debbie pointed out the stitching on her bag and told me that it was hers, but that she’d show me how to make one and help me make my own later. That sounded like fun – I already did a lot of arts and crafts projects with Linda and Craig, her husband, who lived with PawPaw and me. I was sure I could make a little weed bag just as nice as Debbie’s, especially with her help.
She was fun. Wendy was focused on driving to the subdivision and smoking the joint, but Debbie could multitask, and she could somehow chat with me without exhaling. There was a slight haze in the air, but she did her best to look up and out the window to exhale without breaking eye contact with me. I was perched high on the Yellow Pages, in a slight haze of smoke, and though I can’t recall what she and I talked about, I remember laughing more with Debbie than anyone else before.
She could do magic. She could remove her thump and blow at its stump and it would magically pop back into existence. She removed my nose and held it in her closed fist, barely poking out between her fingers, and when I giggled and grasped my face she blew towards me and my nose magically reappeared, just like her thumb had; I never noticed that my nose looked just like her thumb. I liked Debbie.
The Datsun was making a funny noise, like a squeaky wheel, or a little mouse under the dashboard, and Wendy had been tapping it and telling it to stop for a while. It hadn’t, and she was getting more and more angry with the squeaky wheel, and she started hitting the dashboard with the palm of her hand and uttering something mean. Debbie stopped doing magic, and Wendy got angrier and angrier and hit the dashboard with her closed fist, yelling again and again for it to stop making that noise!
Debbie spoke calmly, perhaps because she was so high, and she touched Wendy gently and asked her nicely to watch where she was going, and to focus on driving safely. Wendy seemed to like Debbie touching her, and she turned towards the road and took a few breaths. Debbie handed her a quickly rolled joint that she had deftly made with one hand, as if a gunslinger, but with a joint; and she flipped it up and caught it with her lips, like a cowboy in an old wild west movie on PawPaw’s TV, and she lit that joint and took a brief hit to flame the cherry, and handed to Wendy and reminded her to watch the road and focus. Wendy did just like Debbie suggested, and soon everyone was happy again.
Wendy was giggling, high on life, and turned on the radio. Coincidentally, it was Janis Joblin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and I learned my first song by listening to Debbie and Wendy sing every song that driver knew.
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New Orleans
I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I’s playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
The song ended and they laughed and Debbie pointed out Wendy’s clean red bandana and we talked about things I don’t recall. They finished the joint and rolled the windows back down, and air rushed at me and I watched us descend from I-10 and go into a subdivision. I was high, perched atop the stack of Yellow Pages, and Wendy lurched house to house, and Debbie would hop out and run a phone book up to each doorstep.
After emptying the Datsun, we stopped at a 7-11 and got Coke Slushies and took them to a public park in Zachary with a playground, and Wendy pushed me on a swing and Debbie road down a slide with me, and they tried to teach me to throw a Frisbee but I wasn’t good at it. Debbie showed me how to pretend to remove someone’s nose and clench my thumb to look not unlike a nose in my hand. We sipped Slushies and seemed to have no worries in the world.
Wendy took Debbie home to her mother’s small appartment, a remarkable experience because her mom spoke by shrieking without inflection; I’d later learn they were on state disability for sczipphrenia. It was terrifying to observe, but Debbie and Wendy didn’t seem to mind and I eventually became used to the screaching and the thick cigarette smoke that hung in the apartment like a morning fog over PawPaw’s pond.
They had lots of snacks, sugary sweet things like Raisenettes – chocolate covered raisins – and fortune cookies from the small Chinese restaurant on the busy road by their apartment, and I sat in front of the small black and white television, snacking on an endless supply of treats and watching PBS.
Wendy had saved enough for a deposit on a tiny apartment in the same complex and said we’d be moving there soon, and I liked Debbie and thought that sounded fun. She then said we were running late, so we left Debbie’s and lurched past the Chinese restaurant onto the busy road and were soon flying along I-10. I had eaten an entire bag of Raisenettes and several fortune cookies and was sleepy, and I stretched out in the relatively luxurious space of the front seat and dozed off.
I woke up some time later when I heard Wendy talking with someone. We were stopped on the side of the interstate, and a big man in a uniform was standing outside Wendy’s window. I was groggy, and she nervously shook me and looked at the policeman and said something about me, and fumbled in her big purse and handed him her driver’s license.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she told him. “My brother’s sick, and I was in a hurry to get us home.”
He bent down and peered through the window and looked at me. I was awake by then.
“Howdy, son,” he said, smiling. I didn’t smile back – I had never seen someone in uniform before, and I wasn’t sure what to think. “What’s your name?”
“Jason Partin, s’uh,” I replied, speaking politely, like I had heard PawPaw speak with the men who worked for him, calling them sir and the young ladies ma’am, like a fine southern gentlemen should, but I pronounced my name like Debbie had, the Cajun way, Pa’tan, probably because like most kids I imitated people I enjoyed being around.
The police officer may have been impressed by my manners, and Pa’tan was a respectable, Cajun name that meant we were locals, so he looked at Wendy’s license, confirmed our names matched, smiled and thanked her kindly, and said we could go but to drive more slowly so that we got home safely. Wendy agreed, and we lurched back into traffic and she clutched her steering wheel with shaking hands and asked me to not tell Mr. White.
Wendy pulled into PawPaw’s gravel driveway and I saw MawMaw waiting for us in the carport beside PawPaw’s cricket cage. She was a classic southern belle of a woman, middle aged yet energetic, with bright red lipstick and grey hair that she tended immaculately and arranged in a seemingly impossible beehive on top of her head, held in place by copious amounts of hairspray. Her maiden name was Dorris Shakelton, and she was from the wealthy Baton Rouge Lamar family, of Lamar advertising, which owns and rents out most roadside billboards in America. If you’re driving and see a billboard with a small, green Lamar family logo on the bottom, you’ve seen a sign that connects you to this story. And if you see an 18 wheeler or other truck on any road, there’s probably a Teamster behind the wheel, and, in a way, that links all of us together.
When Wendy pulled into the driveway, I could almost smell the things I loved most about MawMaw, hairspray and chocolate chip cookies, and I was so excited that I almost jumped out of the Datsun before Wendy had lurched to a complete stop. I was famished again, unsurprisingly – people call hunger after riding high atop the Yellow Pages “the munchies” – and MawMaw always had lots of chocolate chip cookies and shugga’ for me, and I couldn’t wait to get inside. We finally stopped, but Wendy had to help me open the Datsun’s old rusty door before I could hop out. It took forever, and as soon as my big feet hit the gravel with a satisfying crunch and I ran towards MawMaw without saying goodbye to Wendy. She squatted down and rested her hands on her knees and smiled a big, huge, red-lipstick covered smile and waited for me to reach her before opening her arms and receiving my hug. She held me tightly and gave me shugga’ all over my cheeks, and I giggled and pretended to hate it and kept wiping off the red lipstick marks I knew would be there. Wendy drove away – I wasn’t allowed to spend the night with her yet – and I had fallen into a ritual of transitioning from Wendy to MawMaw centered around cookies and shugga’.
“Gimme some shugga’!” she’d say, every time, and I’d giggle and hide my face with my hands and she’d peck around looking for an opening to place one more red lipstick smack of shugga’. She almost always found at least one spot, and sometimes I lowered my guard intentionally and allowed one more smack! before wiping it off. Once inside, she’d help me wash the red off my hands and cheeks and give me cookies and ask me what happened with Wendy. I always felt bad lying to MawMaw, so I usually just went silent and looked at my big feet, and she would sigh and rest her hands on her hips and look down at me and, always, squat back down and smile that big red smile and give me another hug. She soon stopped asking, thankfully, and we just enjoyed our cookies and waited for PawPaw to come home after cleaning up Glenoaks High School and taking care of its trees.
Usually, he’d come home and grab a beer and light an unfiltered Camel and fill a mesh cricket tube full of crickets from their cage in the carport, and we’d carry a couple of cane poles to the small pond beyond the big gate. He’d teach me to tie fishhook knots and use his cigarette to burn off the loose ends, and how to hook a cricket so it lived and moved under water and attracted fish, and how to watch the red bobber float on the dark water and not react when it danced, only when it went under and the fish had committed.
Every time I caught a little pond brim, he’d tell me what a good job I did and that we should toss him back in so that it could get bigger for next time. It never did. I only caught tiny brim in PawPaw’s pond, but I never blamed him for that, and never got tired of hoping to one day catch a big one. And, every time we finished fishing, I was always happy to walk back to the dinner MawMaw would have waiting, and, of course, milk and cookies for dessert.
The day after I delivered Yellow Pages with Wendy and Debbie, PawPaw took me for a walk to buy cigarettes and the nearby convenience store. Like with MawMaw, I had rituals with PawPaw, and walking to the store was one of my favorites because it was beside a giant stately oak tree, like the one Wendy and her friends climbing in Granny’s yard, and PawPaw would always stop and play with me and that tree. Its branches were long and stretched out in undulating waves across the field and were draped in Spanish moss, and PawPaw had discovered one branch that formed a perfect swing, like a giant’s arm cradling something gently, and every time we arrived I’d try to climb into the swing. I’d get a little better every time, and he was always nearby in case I slipped or needed a nudge. I almost made it that day, and at the last moment, just before I would have slipped and fallen, I heard his voice.
“D’er ya go, Lil’ Buddy,” he said, giving me a gentle nudge so that my fingers could grasp the bark enough to pull myself up and into a dip formed by the undulating branch.
I sat in the tree and looked PawPaw in the eyes, and he nudged the branch and it swayed up and down and I giggled and clutched the bark and felt like I could keep climbing all the way to the big bright blue sky barely visible through the oak tree’s green and brown canopy. PawPaw snatched a piece of grey Spanish moss and made it look like his beard and I laughed and let go of the bark and picked a piece of moss for myself. He stayed beside me in case I fell, and we sat there as two old, bearded men, laughing at nothing in particular.
“Aw’ right, Lil’ Buddy, time t’ go,” he said, and replaced his beard on the branch and put his hands under my arms and lifted me up. I kept my beard, knowing my clever disguise would fool the store workers. It had worked every time so far.
We walked in and the man behind the counter smiled and said, “Hi, Ed! Who you got here today?”
The convenience store man was the only person I heard not call PawPaw Mr. White, and they seemed like great friends, just like almost everyone I saw around PawPaw.
I whipped off my Spanish moss and showed the man it was me, and he looked surprised and said he hand’t recognized me. We chatted, and PawPaw picked up a carton of milk and a roll of chocolate chip cookie dough, pre-made and shaped into a cookie-diameter tube, and set them on the counter between us. The man reached up and grabbed a pack of Camels and put them beside the milk and cookies.
“Thank you, s’uh,” PawPaw said, cheerful as always. He paused, went back to the walled refrigerator, and came back with a six pack of Miller pony bottles, the shorter, round bottles. The man behind the counter put our milks in one bag for PawPaw to carry, and, as usual, gave me my own bag to carry the cookie dough.
Back home, I gave MawMaw the tube of dough and she off a piece for me, and I realized I may like raw dough as much if not more than baked cookies; I still may. PawPaw and I both drank our milk, though mine was in a glass and his was in a pony bottle, and we waited for that day’s employee to show up. This time, it was my Uncle Kieth, Ed Partin Jr’s little brother, not his friend the car dealer. Kieth Partin takes after his father, physically. He’s a a remarkably huge man that radiates strength and formidability, with his father’s sky blue eyes and light blonde hair. Yet he’s a gentle giant, and a hard worker who came around often.
As with all his employees, PawPaw called Kieth s’uh and offered him a pony bottle of milk before going to work in the back field, beside the small fishing pond and barn. I usually came along, though I just watched or fished while they cut branches and burned them on top of fire ant nests, killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes.
But, that time, instead of fishing I set my sites on climbing the 8 foot tall rusted metal gate that separated the house from the field and fishing pond. Unfortunately, the gate was unhinged – PawPaw had a lot of partially finished projects around the farm – and when I reached the top it tilted backward and I began to fall with it. I clutched the rusted metal bars with both hands, but no one was there to give me a boost or catch me, and when I finally couldn’t hold on any more I let go and hit the ground and the gate fell on top of me and its sharp edge sliced the back of my scalp open. I screamed.
“Ed! Ed!” I heard. “It’s Jason! Come quick!”
Kieth was the second person I heard call PawPaw Ed.
I can still see Kieth running towards me in my mind’s eye, though my memory is skewed, literally, because I was on my left side and the world seemed rotated 90 degrees; later in life, I’d read research studies that showed our minds eventually right the wrongs and reconstruct our mind’s eye to “see” things differently than they are for the sake of our mental well being. But, in 1975, I saw Kieth running towards me sideways and in huge leaps and bounds, propelled by legs taller than I was, and I didn’t understand how he was running sideways but didn’t stop screaming or take time to ponder it, but that’s how I still see it. I remember the vision clearly, and can hear my own screams as if I were not the one screaming but an observer recording the situation, and I can still see a sideways Kieth reach me much faster than PawPaw and his little legs could have. Beyond Kieth I saw smoke and burning piles of fire ants, also rotated 90 degrees and obscuring my view of PawPaw, but I knew he was there. He was always there when I needed him. I felt that, and didn’t need to see it. Some things are so right in our mind’s eye that our brains don’t alter our perspectives to satisfy our desire for normalization.
Kieth grabbed the massive gate and heaved it away effortlessly and reached down and picked me up and cradled me, and despite my pain and terror, a tiny part of me felt as safe and secure as I had felt cradled by the oak tree’s branch, and somehow, miraculously, that’s what I felt as my body bled profusely and I screamed incessantly.
“Hurry Ed! He’s hurt bad!” Kieth shouted.
“Get in d’ truck!” PawPaw shouted back between breaths. “Get in d’ passenger side!” I saw him, framed in smoke that was now behind him, and he waved towards the truck and called out, “Go on, now! Go on!”
Kieth cradled me and rushed through the open gate and wrenched open PawPaw’s truck door, an old Ford with metal doors that would stick and creak and groan and resist opening, but they were no match for Keith’s brute strength. The door yielded and we slid in and he slammed it shut with a loud and satisfying crunch, and PawPaw somehow found the same strength and ripped his door open and hopped into the driver’s side of his Ford’s bucket seat. I was bleeding dangerously. Scalp wounds are dangerous because all arteries and veins are exposed against your skull and will not close themselves, especially if you’ve been scalped, and I had a large flap of scalp dangling precariously from my skull, attached only by a small slice of skin and hair. The Ford’s vinyl seat was covered in blood that slid across the slippery plastic in and pooled in depressions and along creases, like dark red rivers flowing from small lakes of blood on the bucket seat. PawPaw didn’t hesitate. He cranked the ignition and peeled out and accelerated towards the blacktop and turned left onto it so quickly that pools of blood splashed across the seat and spilled into Kieth’s passenger side floorboard.
“Oh God, Ed! Oh God! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!”
No one had to tell PawPaw to hurry, he was a force of nature and intensely focused on nothing but saving me. Gravel bounced into the air behind us as his truck tires gained traction on the pavement and we accelerated forward faster than I had ever felt his Ford go.
I was no longer surprised that the world was sideways. I accepted that things weren’t as they seemed, and as I screamed I saw the big stately oak tree by the convenience store. I felt my body wanting to slide against Kieth’s door as PawPaw accelerated through the red traffic light and turned sharply, and I felt Kieth’s strong arm cradle me and keep my head from flopping around as we sped through the intersection with tires screeching against the blacktop and PawPaw pulling the old trucks manual steering with all his might.
PawPaw had never had fixed his truck’s turn signal, but he didn’t need one because he had poked half his small body out the window and was waving his white bandana with his left hand and pulling the big steering wheel with his right and shouting at cars coming towards us, “Get out d’ way! Get out d’ way!” and, magically, they all did. His right arm was straining with the force of turning, and his left hand was frantically waving his white hanky and his humble accent was loud and clear, and, miraculously, everyone got out of our way. That’s the last thing I remember before passing out.
I woke up a few days later in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where I had been born four years before, and the first thing I saw was PawPaw, exhausted. His wrinkled face was aged by grey beard stubble, the real kind, not Spanish moss. His non glass eye was bloodshot. Both cheeks were puffy. His hair was disheveled. He smelled like cigarettes and chainsaw oil, as usual, but he also smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a few days. He was sideways.
I sat up and he righted along with me, and his eyebrows perked up and he looked at me and blew his nose into his bandana and smiled and said as cheerfully as ever, “Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy. ‘Bout time you woke up.”
I had to stay a few more days and get a more tests for head injuries, but I had fun because the recovery room had a big color television and I could watch Popeye and Friends and the SuperFriends on Saturday morning. We only had a small black and white television at home, and the Lady of the Lake’s common room had a large color television that mesmerized me. I saw PopEye pop open a can of spinach and gulp it down, and I listened to the music build tempo as PopEye’s arms grew more muscular and he grew stronger and could finally beat Brutus. And I saw Batman and Robin teach a magic trick that made you appear as strong as a super hero, and Aquaman teach how to magically push a glass through a table using misdirection; at that time, Super Friends broke the fourth wall of theater and spoke to kids and taught them magic tricks. But, my most interesting memory was playing with other kids in with the toys piled across from the giant TV, not just because it was the first time I had been around other kids, but also because many of the toys were advertised on the giant television and I blurred what was real and what wasn’t. I imagined I, too, could do whatever anyone on TV did. But, that feeling may have just been a head injury.
I stayed at the hospital a few days for tests that came back negative, and I wore a bandage around my head that had to be changed daily, and when they changed it on my final day one of the nurses brought in two mirrors so I could see the back of my head. I was bald now, but they said my hair would grow back soon. I strained to see the back of my head, only just realizing how two mirrors worked like magic so that I could see behind myself, but even then I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. PawPaw exclaimed that I had 82 stitches! I must be the bravest lil’ fisherman alive! I’m sure I agreed, especially because I was feeling like a superhero.
I know now that he exaggerated, most doctors put about 3-4 stitches per inch of cut, so I probably only had 20 to 30 stitches, about the number of raised bumps I can still count, from where the skin had been pulled tightly and had healed thickly, but for some reason PawPaw said 82 and that’s the number I’d use when we finally returned home and I talked about my adventure. And, he had to explain to me that Our Lady of the Lake didn’t really have a lake, so we couldn’t go fishing there, but he’d take me when we got home. MawMaw was waiting when we arrived, and she had cookies and milk waiting for both of us, of course. She was much more gentle with her shugga’ for a few weeks, until my hair started to grow back, and then we went back to life as usual, and I felt like the bravest lil’ fisherman alive, happy, still climbing trees, and knowing PawPaw would always be there to catch me or help with a gentle nudge.